I’ve been reading a lot of medieval history recently in preparation to teach about medieval Christian Europe this term. What’s mostly struck me so far is how depressingly familiar it seems. There are whole books to be written (perhaps there already have been) about the continuities between the medieval invention of heretics and witches in order that they might be persecuted and the contemporary War on Terror; about the commonalities between the much-feared figure of the wandering Jews, rootless in society because society uprooted them and the contemporary figure of the migrant; about the many and various ways in which the European past is not nearly such a foreign country as we’d like to believe.
One way, though, that things really do seem to have changed between then and now is the role of death in shaping the course of historical events. One of the books I’ve been reading is F. Donald Logan’s “A History of the Church in the Middle Ages”, and at times it seems like it’s basically an account of the ways in which history was formed by the fact that somebody – sometimes several people – died at a crucial moment.
For example, in 867 there was almost a schism between the Eastern and Western Churches: the Western Pope Nicholas I and the Eastern Patriarch Photius had both excommunicated one another, which seems like it would be a fatal blow to Christian unity. But then the Byzantine emperor was assassinated, and the new emperor deposed Photius; even more crucially, Pope Nicholas died before he found out either that he’d been condemned by Photius or that the emperor was dead; and so the split didn’t finally happen for another couple of centuries.
Not long afterwards, Pope Formosus got, ahem, encouraged by the local nobility to recrown the local Duke Wido as emperor, and his son as co-emperor along with him. Formosus tried to relieve some of the political pressure that was being brought to bear on him by inviting Arnulf, the Carolingian king, to invade Italy, but Arnulf got ill and had to go home, then Wido died, leaving the empire officially in the hands of his son but in practice in the hands of his former wife. She tried to defend herself from Arnulf’s second attempt at an invasion, but failed. So Formosus crowned Arnulf the new Roman Emperor, except then Arnulf died on his way home; and then Formosus died (and then, just for fun, a subsequent pope dug up his decaying body, put it on trial, defrocked it, threw it in a common grave, where it was dug up by grave robbers, then thrown in the river Tiber, which flooded, subsequent to which the body ended up back on land, was secretly buried, then exhumed by a subsequent pope who dug it up again, re-robed it, and put it back in its original tomb. For some reason, there were no more popes called Formosus): all of his scheming with Arnulf came to nothing.
In 1046 Henry III marched on Rome to instigate papal reform, kicked out three popes who were arguing over who was the real pope, and installed a new pope – Benedict IX – to transform the papacy. This pope just about managed to crown Henry emperor, but died after ten months; and then the next pope, Damasus II, died after twenty-three days in office; only with the third pope, Leo IX, did anything much get done.
In 1439, the Eastern and Western churches came within a whisker of reunification: they’d managed to resolve all of their major disputes (the solution to the problem of the filioque, charmingly, was that each side got their formulae from their saints, and that saints couldn’t possibly be propagating contradictory formulae, so the two sides must in fact be saying exactly the same thing just in different words; ain’t patristic authority a marvellous thing?). Anyway, they’d gotten so close to agreement and reunion that they declared a civic holiday, had a massive party, sat important people on massive thrones and read a bull of union. Everyone started to fall into line; except that then King Albert, the king of Germany died all of a sudden, leading to a struggle over who would succeed him. The pope had promised, as part of the reunification negotiations, to send some military aid to help the Greeks fight the Turks, but the wrangling in Germany meant he couldn’t do that. Then, when the Greek delegation got home, they discovered that Emperor John VIII’s wife had died while they were away, and the emperor spent six months in such deep mourning that he lost the opportunity to enforce the new union of the church. And so the consensus fell apart and the Eastern and Western churches remain disunited.
I can’t think of any contemporary parallels, where the course of history has been shaped by people just …dying, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, without being assassinated (I’m probably missing some and look forward to you correcting me in the comments). Where death plays a different role for us, perhaps, is in those regimes held together around a single figure who lives far longer than anyone expected them too, in the midst of slowly declining health: the papacy of John Paul II, Cuba under Castro, Venezuela under Chavez. Medieval death happens with a bang; ours, with a whimper.